Sprite Photograph

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A Sprite

A photo of a "Sprite" taken from the ground.

(Full photograph)
The whole frame. (Plus a few alterations)

Image of Sunset and  Crepuscular rays
The sunset earlier that evening! (Crepuscular rays)

The photograph was taken with a Pentax Spotmatic 55mm set at f/1.8 and was exposed for 5 - 10 seconds. The shutter was then closed about 1 second after the sprite disappeared. The sprite lasted for between 1/4 and 1/2 seconds. Film used was Kodak Gold 400.

The sprite in the photograph is actually behind a thin layer of intervening clouds. This particular one had the most contrast of the 15 or so seen that night. I was fortunate to be able to quasi-record it.

Information on Sprites can be found at:
The Sprite Watchers Homepage
Space Shuttle Observations of Lightning (Mesoscale Lightning Experiment)
Lightning Detection from Space (A Lightning Primer)

Details of the observation...
On the night of August 16 between 10:30 and 11:15 PM EST, I observed several "sprites", "elves" and "jets" associated with some electrical storm activity that was occuring somewhere over south central/western Pennsylvania or north central Maryland. I live in Mt. Airy Maryland and observed these objects from my yard. Two friends of mine also observed the "sprites" from different location about five miles away.

The sprites had a very deep orange to red color. Some had single main tendrils, others had up to 4 or 5 tendrils. Most sprites were taller than they were wide although the one photo'd was rather short and squat, wider than it was tall. It had 4 tendrils to the unaided eye and the top seemed to have a blueish color (or left me with that mental impression).

I also observed several "jets". They were very fleeting but indeed there. At one point (at the height of the action) I saw perhaps 5 elves 2 of which were immediately accompanied by sprites, and maybe 7 jets all within a 30 second period. One jet in particular was very wide, several times the width of all the others. It propagated upward at an angle that made it appear to be tipped towards me, heading to a position over my head. It was "hollow" and cylindrical in appearance. Its leading edge appeared to be like a donut or toroid blue-ish green-ish in color. It was a plasma toroid. The object I have found this to be is conceptually defined by attributes of a "spheromak" or a squashed "charged sheath vortex" where the current is compressed along the length creating a toroidal current. Visualize this by thinking of vertically compressing a tornado into a toroid.

The jets were perhaps as subtle as the elves. I saw several jets before actually realizing what they were. All total, maybe 25 or so jets were seen.

Another phenomenon, captured on film also, was this short-lived utterly intensely bright point like source that lasted between 3/4 to 1 second. This object left a "very bright star like" image on the photo. A second one of these was captured on a later frame. Both frames have clouds completely blotting out the stars in the background sky where these things occurred. I would estimate the brightness of the visually observed one to be a couple to several times the brightness of Sirius although "much finer" a point like source than Sirius. Strange looking! There was not the same glare to the eye as there is when looking at Sirius. The brightness of this object indeed had a light curve, starting out dim and very rapidly brightening, then suddenly disappearing at peak brightness.

There is an interesting article in the August issue of Scientific American about sprites, jets and other associated phenomenon.
One interesting thing to note is: Deducing info from the Sci AM (August issue) article about sprites, the bottoms of the sprites start at about 45 kilometers and reach a height of 90 kilometers. This makes them appear about half as tall as their maximum altitude. Most pictures I have seen indicate this 2:1 (max height to size) ratio. The sprites that I observed seemed to be about 5 times smaller than their max altitude. About a 5:1 (max height to size) ratio. They were either closer thus changing the perspective, very high, or perhaps just plain smaller in size. The Sci Am images were shot near Ft. Collins Colorado on July 25th 1995.

A copy of my original post to sci.astro and sci.astro.amateur
Also sent to sci.geo.meteorology sci.space.science

Maybe off topic...a weather related phenomenon....

Last night 08-16-97 between 10:30 and 11:15PM EST, I observed several "sprites" associated with some major electrical storm activity that was occuring somewhere over south central/western Pennsylvania.

The "sprites" were actually a very *easy* naked eye objects although lasting maybe only 1/4 - 1/2 second. I dont know how to estimate the brightness in terms of magnitude. If one defocusses the eye slightly on Vega, the blurryness of Vega would accurately represent the brightness of any equal size portion of these observed "sprites". No kidding! These would be easy for the unskilled observer to see too!

Here is the story:
Around 10:30 PM 08-16-87, I was in my "basement starewell observatory" cussing at the near full moon, swearing at the nearly perpetually skunky Mid-Atlantic skies, and I kept seeing these very brief flashes that I thought were lightning. These brief flashes are what really caught my attention. The house was blocking my view of the source so I went to a different area of my back yard to observe these flashes that I thought to be lightning. After a minute of observing some distant thunderheads light up, I saw the first "sprite". I instantly recognized it as a sprite for I had just read a Sci AM. article on them and have been reading about them for 5 years or so. I started thinking no one would believe me.... About a minute later, I ovserved the second "sprite". I thought wow and raced in to get the camera. Loaded a new roll of Kodak Gold 400 into the old Pentax 55mm f/1.8, checked all settings repeatedly while heading back out thinking, these things were bright enough to catch on film if they occurred shortly after opening the shutter and then immediately closing the shutter, then milking the photo for all its worth and deep scanning it etc... After a few attempts I decided to head up to the top of my back yard where I can see 4 states, MD,VA,WVA and PA. Put the camera on a fence post and shot 20 more or so shots. The brightest sprite observed happened to occur maybe 5 seconds after opening the shutter! I immediately released the cable release. THIS PICTURE MAY COME OUT!!!

The "sprites" were sometimes preceeded by the "elves" which seemed so very short in duration that you end up only with a minds eye type impression. Several "elves" were indeed observed. Somtimes they occurred with no observed "sprite" (which may have been obscured by closer clouds). The "elves" were frizbee or pancake domed in shape with the overall impression of being redish. Again, the elves were very very faint and very short lived.

The "Sprites" were a deep orange in color. The brightest was possibly redder than the others and left me with the impression of a blueness surrounding the top. ( Just like some images I've seen ). Overall brightness was similar to Vega if defocussed meaning any part of the sprite the size of defocussed Vega was as bright as it. Deneb was too dim, Vega just right. The first two sprites were cylindrical without a "head". The others seemed to have a head and the classic tendrils looking like a virtual cosmic electric jellyfish. The sprites appeared to be about 5 degrees tall (or so) and were about 20 - 25 degrees in elevation above the horizon. The elves were 15-20 degrees wide and maybe 25-30 degrees in elevation above the horizon.

The "sprites and elves" seemed only to occur during these very brief lightning "flashes" that I kept seeing and did not seem to occur during (or precceed) long duration lightning discharges. I was left with the impression that each event was like a fast short circuit spark like discharge. Again, it was these short duration flashes that originally captured my attention. They were not "normal".

I observed at least 15 of the sprites, and did not keep track of the number of elves, partly due to the fact that it took many times of observing the elves to realize that they were elves. I did not time the interval between sprites but now wish I had.

A report like this may be hard to swallow and I sincerely hope the photo mentioned comes out. I will post the results of that photo to a site (if if comes out ok) or at least follow up on these newsgroups mentioning that it didnt...whatever. Anyone seriously seeking more info can contact me via e-mail at gvarros@gvarros.com . I could provide a phone# for a more productive conversation if desired. Due to the names of these objects, well...uh.... serious inquiries only please.

What a show!!!

George Varros